BEIRUT: A Syrian truce brokered by Russia and Turkey was under growing strain on Monday as opposition fighters vowed to respond to regime’s violations and President Bashar Assad said the army would retake an important opposition-held area near Damascus.
Assad, in comments to French media, also said his regime was ready to negotiate on “everything” at peace talks his Russian allies hope to convene in Kazakhstan, including his own position within the framework of the Syrian constitution.
But he indicated any new constitution must be put to a referendum and it was up to Syrians to elect their president.
His opponents have insisted throughout nearly six years of war that he must leave power under any future peace deal. But since Russia joined the war on his side in late 2015, his regime’s position on the battlefield has strengthened dramatically, giving him greater leverage now than at any time since the war’s earliest days.
The cease-fire which came into effect on Dec. 30 aims to pave the way for the new peace talks which Russia hopes to convene with Turkish and Iranian support. But no date has been set for the talks and the warring sides have accused each other of truce violations.
The Moscow-led effort to revive diplomacy, without the participation of the United States, has emerged with Assad buoyed by the defeat of opposition fighters in Aleppo, and as ties thaw between Russia and Turkey, long one of the fighters’ main backers.
Ankara, now seemingly more worried by growing Kurdish sway in Syria than toppling Assad, supports the diplomatic push.
The latest fighting has been especially intense near Damascus where the army and allied militia are trying to capture an opposition-held area that includes the main water source supplying Damascus. It was bombed out of service more than two weeks ago.
Assad blamed truce violations on the insurgents, and said the army must “prevent terrorists from using the water to throttle the capital.” He said it was the army’s job to recapture the Wadi Barada area, which he said had been occupied by a radical group not covered by the cease-fire.
The opposition denies the area is in radicals’ hands.
The United Nations has said 5.5 million people have had little or no running water for more than two weeks in Damascus. It blamed “deliberate targeting” for destroying the pumping station, without saying by whom. The opposition accuses the regime.
Talks between the regime and the opposition aimed at allowing repairs to the pumping station failed at the weekend, and heavy airstrikes were reported in the area on Sunday.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, reported clashes in Wadi Barada on Monday and said regime forces shelled several towns there.
In Idlib province in the north, a military media unit run by Damascus’s ally Hezbollah said rebel shelling killed two people in the pro-regime villages of Al-Foua and Kefraya.
‘We will not remain silent’
The spokesman for one of the opposition groups that signed the cease-fire said opposition leaders had concluded they could not continue abiding the truce in what he described as a “unilateral way,” and they would respond to attacks by the other side.
“Even if the agreement continues within what has been agreed on, they have the full right to respond to breaches wherever they are,” Mamoun Haj Musa, spokesman for the Free Syrian Army-affiliated Suqur Al-Sham group, told Reuters.
Writing on Twitter, the head of another rebel group said the opposition had agreed to the truce to spare Syrian blood. But with violence continuing, “we will not remain silent” wrote Mohamad Al-Mansour, head of Jaish Al-Nasr.
Asked if the regime planned to recapture Daesh-held city of Raqqa, Assad said it was the regime’s army’s role to liberate “every inch” of Syrian land. “But the question is related to when, and our priorities. This is a military matter linked to military planning and priorities,” he added.
Riad Nassan Agha, a member of the main Syrian opposition umbrella group, the Riyadh-backed High Negotiations Committee, said he had not heard of anyone being invited to the Astana talks yet.
“Syrians do not yet feel that there is a cease-fire. The battles are continuing: the attack on Wadi Barada, on (rural) western Aleppo, on Idlib, on the Ghouta (suburban area near) Damascus, Daraa,” he said. The Astana talks “cannot succeed unless the cease-fire is implemented,” he added.